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2 FB OR NOT 2 FB

Once realisation dawns that this is not just a harmless shiny toy we are playing with. Give up these platforms. All of them. Also, give up the good, positive uses of the same. No platform or service is worth using if it is going to affect the wiring of your mind (against Facebook by Cosmo Naut)

How do you plan your day? What you intend to do with your time? Where do you go? What do you eat? The thousands of tiny, daily, decisions of living your life: Brush teeth, shower, wear nice clothes, go to work, got out for dinner, shop on the weekends, for groceries, more clothes, more shoes, watch a movie, buy popcorn at the cinema, meet a friend at a neighbourhood coffee shop.

But, which toothpaste do you choose? Which store for clothes? For shoes? Which theatre for what kind of films? Which supermarket for the groceries? Which coffee shop? There are so many.

Let us ask a simpler question. How do you form your habits and preferences? Most hygiene and health related habits are embedded in your early upbringing. Brushing teeth, bathing, physical exercise and such. Other habits are mostly discovered and derived by the pursuit of pleasure or to ensure that you can afford such habits. Eating delicious food, watching an entertaining film, wearing nice clothes, racking up a prestigious title at work, all provide you with a hit of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s pleasure/reward centre. That feeling of biting into a soft, creamy, piece of cake that takes the edge off a rough day. Or a slice of pizza, or a glass of chilled beer on a hot summer day. Yes, that feeling.

Now, till very recently, say about before 2008 or so, I was fairly set in my ways. And most of my habits, health and pleasure oriented both, were more or less driven by what I had seen around me as I was growing up. The mores of my community, my social construct in college, the myriad unspoken rules about what were considered decent and appropriate boundaries set by my family. These guardrails were comfortably placed along the path of my unsuspecting youth, sometimes to rebel against, most other times to hold on to. And I was mostly happy. And the unhappy things were familiar too.

But, then things changed in 2008. I graduated from college where I studied business administration and I entered the work force. I joined a public sector bank. And I joined Facebook on January 22, 2008. Scrolling down to my older posts from 2008 through 2012 I find them pitiably easy pickings for any profiler. My angst ridden, poorly edited poems about the lack of meaning in my day job, my growing aspiration for global travel and writing, the same group of friends who I kept tagging in things and who kept tagging me in other things, pictures from dinner, whether the western train line worked on time or not. It was all there. 2012 onwards, my posts dropped off. Maybe 1 in a couple of months. But, between 2008 and 2012, my entire world view was deeply coloured by Facebook’s insane levels of intimate access to other people’s lives.

Everyone’s vacations, weekend plans, experiences studying overseas, getting into relationships and out. It was one incredibly colourful constant stream of people living their lives for everyone to see. I wanted it all. I wanted what everyone else was eating, everywhere they were going, the clothes they were wearing, the family gatherings that they were having and all the likes and comments that everyone else were getting. I wanted everyone else’s life. And I wanted it because in comparison, my own life looked more and more inadequate. My own achievements looked plainer. Sadder. My vacations which had been perfectly lovely before, now seemed quite underwhelming. My career seemed less thrilling. I wasn’t going places like some others I was tracking regularly. Facebook was making me seriously unhappy. I was always wanting.

Never once, did it occur to me or any of my other friends how this platform was being run. Who was paying for the work that went into keeping it active and evolving. Facebook was a new toy and it was shiny and I was happy (unhappy, actually) playing with it. There was nothing in any media source on how Facebook was being run in those years. It was a privately held small company somewhere in California run by a young chap who seemed earnest and wanted to bring the world to come together for the good of all. It seemed harmless and it seemed safe. You could find old friends on it, add new friends as you made them and most importantly you could visit random profiles of people you did not know. And it was terribly addictive. Safe, socially sanctioned stalking was much too alluring to concern any of us whether it was good for us or not. The fact that it was not good for us was underlined very well by Chamath Palihapitiya, an ex-employee of Facebook who banned it for his kids. Also by Sean Parker, its earliest investor.

Facebook was listed on the stock exchange on May 18 2012. I took off most pictures from my profile by the end of that year. I never checked in on it from any location. It wasn’t something that I did consciously. The fact that the Facebook IPO was the biggest in technology and one of the biggest in Internet history, with a peak market capitalization of over $104 billion, pierced through my benign view of Facebook and rang an alarm bell deep in my subconscious. I was put off by it. Still, there was no international mainstream media coverage on how exactly the billion-dollar valuation had come to be. There was very low awareness on exactly how much money Facebook was making and the sources of that money.

When the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke in March 2018, I was not surprised by the fact that Facebook had sold user data to a firm that used it to profile voters and influence polling results in various countries. I was surprised at the surprising wave of awareness that rippled through the news-sentient world on how Facebook was this evil business corporation. That the Facebook business model was in fact based completely and totally on revenue generated from targeted advertisements.

It uses its 1.41 billion daily active users’ activities on its platforms to create detailed profiles for each one and then matches that data to the ad that should be shown in the newsfeed of that particular user. According to the Facebook Annual Report for the calendar year 2017, Page 43, “The most important factor driving advertising revenue growth was an increase in revenue from ads on mobile devices. For 2017, we estimate that mobile advertising revenue represented approximately 88% of total advertising revenue, as compared with approximately 83% in 2016.” The revenues for the same year were $40.65 Billion for year of 2017 vs. $7.87 Billion for the year of 2013. Or as Mark Zuckerberg put it smugly in the recent Congressional hearing of Facebook when asked how does the business model work, “Senator, we run ads.”

There is no financial document on the Facebook Investor website for the years prior to 2013. There is no disclosure and never has been by Facebook on the list of its biggest customers. The company is incredibly cagey about how exactly it executes its targeted advertising. There is no information on the algorithms that generates each user’s individual newsfeed. We have no clue how exactly Facebook manages its USD 40.65 billion revenues. How much of that so-called user data is coming from WhatsApp and Instagram (both owned by Facebook). And how badly are the regular users manipulated in various ways.

There are loud cries currently, on how self–regulation for large technology companies cannot be the norm. How much more stringent regulation by governments is the need of the hour to reign in the massive societal impact of Facebook and its ilk. While those conversations do hold some merit, I think each individual who understands if not completely but even vaguely that her or his opinions, needs and preferences may not be completely of her or his creation, it is time for the individual to self–regulate.

fighting back: In a Congressional hearing where many called his performance robotic, Zuckerberg faced questions without a flutter

Give up these platforms. All of them. Give up taking selfies. Also give up the good, positive uses of the same. No platform or service no matter how useful is worth using, if it is going to affect the wiring of your mind. Form your opinions the old-fashioned way — by thinking critically about them and talking to various people about them especially experts in that field. Inspect your consumption habits – cut the flab wherever you can find it, literally. Communicate via telephone, or text message, or better yet meet people in person. Get off the phone or computer screen, and go for a long walk, talk to your family or just spend some time with nature.

Coca Cola tells me what I should drink on a hot summer day in shimmery attractive advertisements. What it does not tell me is that a single 330 ml can of Coca Cola has 36 grams or 8.6 teaspoons of sugar in it (https://www.coca-colaindia.com/stories/sugar). Nestlé’s Maggi noodles are presented in the most jocular fashion in hundreds of ads to appeal to children across the world. However, there are no follow up ads on the exact ingredients in it nor is the fact spelt out that some of those ingredients will kill you (https://www.nestle.in/aboutus/ask-nestle/answers/maggi-noodles-india-lead). Johnson & Johnson has a delightful page professing the safety of talcum powder (http://www.factsabouttalc.com/#about). However, in April 2018, the same Johnson & Johnson lost a $117 million case in the US where a 46-year- old man developed mesothelioma cancer which was caused by regular use of Johnsons’ Baby Talcum Powder due to the exposure to the asbestos contained in it. Baby powder.

The definition of business as taught in college, is the activity of making one’s living or making money by producing or buying and selling goods or services. This underscores an underlying need of society that can be met profitably buy someone willing to take the risk of engaging in such an activity. However, when the nature of a business is the manufacturing of new needs for society and convincing them of the same, we are sawing off parts of the very wooden raft our society is sailing on.

For us to be informed of our interests, for us to shape our lives wittingly or unwittingly by the marketing diktats of by any purely profit motivated enterprise is our largest failure individually and as a society. It is foolish to believe that governments and any large institutions of people with rule making powers will uphold the highest societal good in spirit and in letter. It is up to each individual to carefully screen her or his own choices and do the grunt work of making good choices regularly enough for them to turn into good habits. Read old textbooks from school about moral ethical behaviour in the form of discipline, moderation, balance and the doctrine of enough. See if you can consume less and appreciate more of what you do consume. Educate yourself endlessly about economics, how businesses are run, how rules are made, how governments function, what is said vs what is done, where your food comes from, where your clothes come from. Your voting by money, meaning the things and services that you decide to pay for, will influence the world in much more meaningful ways than simply voting in a Governmental election and letting them be the agents of change in the world. Be more woke. Quite simply, your life depends on it.

Facebook gives us a chance to expand our social circle, develop new interests and keep in touch with a large number of family and friends. use it wisely and creatively (for Facebook by Pallavi Singh)

What got me thinking was a question from a colleague who wanted to know if a particular guy on my friends list was someone I knew personally. I tried to recall the name but couldn’t. I wondered where I had met him.

When I told the colleague that in all likelihood, I didn’t know him personally, she gasped in horror. I knew what she meant.

For most of us, Facebook was a great discovery 10 years ago. From Orkut, the transition was swift and offered entry to an ever-networked world full of faces from our childhood, family and workplaces. One could connect with long-lost friends, familiarise oneself with the lives of strangers, snoop into ex-lovers’ profiles and just stroll around a bit when one time in hand.

Very soon, Facebook became everyone’s virtual living room, with a show-reel of intimate lives playing in our newsfeed.

Yet, with all our desire for free expression on Facebook, a significant section of people are a little worried about privacy. Over the years, Facebook’s opaque way of functioning over ad targeting, controversies over its red and blue newsfeed, growing concerns over privacy and the Cambridge Analytica scandal have proved that the concerns haven’t been unfounded. This goes on to adequately explain my colleague’s horror years ago.
The key question then is: Should we still continue to be on Facebook?

To go back to my friend’s predicament, I had indeed checked out this friend’s profile on her insistence and figured we had 46 friends in common. I told her then that I couldn’t have said ‘No’ to someone I shared 46 friends with.

What I couldn’t explain to her at that point was this: If I begin to exclude people from my friends list simply because I did not know them, it would defeat the very idea of social networking. Am I on Facebook because it’s only friends and family I care about or because I wouldn’t mind a few more people in my social circle? I choose the latter. I want to include and not exclude.

As a social networking site, Facebook provides a great opportunity to find like-minded people and even those who are equally interesting people other than those who share your interests. In the last decade, I have connected with poets, travellers, bikers, playwrights, actors, tarot card readers, yoga trainers and photographers.

For a change, I am not limited to what I studied and where I work and what I love doing. With newer additions to my list, I grow richer. I admit that adding an acquaintance or stranger does not always lead you to people who will inspire you but yes, all ‘friend adds’ certainly lead to newer people — dull, bright, arrogant, self-centred, warm or contained. That is when you learn to appreciate differences and not just relish the similarities.

While social networking on the web has limited women and their virtual circles to their relationship updates, something bizarre has happened on the communication front too. The web has made them look and become more approachable — what one cannot or may not be able to say in person or over the telephone, can now say over chat and in most likelihood, get away with it! Much of virtual communication today can get very personal before you know it and this could be a friend you have thought highly of all along!

What do you do in such situations — be blunt and risk ruining the friendship or let it pass as a minor aberration on his part?

I call this the million-dollar dilemma of our virtual existence. How much Internet-social should we become? For women, it’s a deeper thought that bothers me: Do they allow themselves to be dismissed or approached purely on account of their relationship updates?

A male friend bluntly describes social networking sites as ‘pick-up joints’’. Another violently disagrees.

But Facebook is more than the place where you find stalkers or admirers; aspirational lives of strangers or private albums of colleagues staring at you from your computer screens. Facebook has evoked in me a desire to travel to cities I never thought I would ever want to visit: Pune, Cochin, Ahmedabad, Madurai… These cities have interesting people — and did someone not say it is people and not places that matter? I have come around to this perspective and peacefully so in the last few months, since I temporarily withdrew from Facebook after the ‘Quit Facebook’ wave.

Then, I had believed that it was making an exhibition out of myself and compromising privacy. Now, I think it’s entirely up to me what I want to be.
I read a report in The Atlantic that said that Facebook was leading to divorce, since it offered plenty of distraction for women and men to look elsewhere despite being in steady relationships. That is when you need to stop. Limited Facebooking — once a week — would also boost your productivity at work. Better still, keep Facebook off your workstation.

People share photography, writing, events, paintings, songs, albums, biking trips, Reiki lessons, or favourite song. Very clearly, Facebook is a platform for sharing; it’s your choice what you want to share: your life, your love story, your work, your interests, general news or just plain, inane thoughts of little interest to most. It’s entirely your call.

I share a bit of both on FB – tightly edited snippets from my life for my list of ‘close friends’; topics of general interest from music to poetry, to the `Never Met’ list and everything else for ‘acquaintances’.

While I do this, I am not naïve. I don’t trust Facebook to not misuse my data. I don’t trust Facebook to be a philanthropic organisation out to democratise the world with information and free sharing. I don’t trust it to not be like another corporation with zest for profit. But it’s not on Facebook to guard what we choose to share freely; it’s on us.

The rules of engagement need to be ours. The solution is not disengagement, but informed engagement. Informed and engaged relationship that keeps track of all the changes being made and all the information coming out on the virtual platform’s algorithms that influence our privacy and newsfeeds.

If we don’t care about our own privacy and are lazy to read up and understand what we are in for, who else will? When excess of information on the Internet and proliferation of various social networking platforms and applications are a growing reality, why must we take it for granted that it in others’ interests to guard our privacy? Just as we guard ourselves in public places, what stops us from being careful online? Addiction — from cigarettes to alcohol to online platforms — is an endless human struggle and it’s up to us to stop.

So it didn’t take me long to get back to Facebook, but my rules of engagement are clear, my friends list trimmer, my privacy controls firmer. I spent time browsing through apps I had casually granted access to, read up on privacy policies and watched deactivated profiles on my friend list, and made changes with time. While this makes me feel safer, I am not closing myself to possibilities.

This year, I have decided to meet at least a few of the most interesting people from my ‘Never Met’ list. I believe this is where all networking should lead to —f rom virtual to real — for the better. I could meet this playwright I have been talking to, since I love plays so much. And meet this young poet from Chennai who reminds me of my favourite Maya Angelou. Or, go pedalling with this biker from Pune who writes poetry.

If it were not for Facebook, I would be alone and stuck, thinking that only what I do/write/think/love/approve of is best.

Facebook makes me what I should be. Open minded.